On privilege

on Sep 7, 2016 | 0 comments

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Scrolling through my Facebook feed just now, I see one of my (thin) friends is planning on attending the New Zealand Chocolate Festival.  I can’t help but think how different her experience at such an event would be, compared to mine.

I’m well practiced at not noticing strangers’ scorn at what I’m eating (this could in part be because I tend to keep my eyes averted because I’m somewhat people-avoidant), but at a chocolate festival, I would be self-conscious and alert to my presence as an ‘alarm bell’ to others, reminding them of what could happen if they eat ‘too much’.

My slim friend, on the other hand, would be free, at this festival, to eat as much as she pleased (so long as she made some self-deprecating remarks about how ‘bad’ she was being), and she could share images of what she saw or ate on Instagram or elsewhere for others to experience vicariously, with no judgements, moral or otherwise, on her actions.

Thin privilege is something I have not had for a very long time, and when I did have it, I was blissfully unaware.  I am grateful that my body since has altered so I am able to see and understand fat phobia.  Certainly, I don’t enjoy the implications of fat phobia, but having my eyes opened to that form of oppression has broadened my perspective, and I am now so much more aware of the multitudes of oppressions and privileges that feature in my life.

The varied adversities I face will become apparent throughout my postings, but I cannot in good conscience start a blog without recognising the privileges I experience.  I try to remain aware of these always, but no doubt I fail at times, and undoubtedly there will be those I am unaware of.  In my writing I will try to counter these whenever possible, but I need to acknowledge them here.

I was raised in a relatively stable lower middle class nuclear family, with left wing political leanings.  We were certainly not flush with money, though we had sufficient for secure housing, food and warmth, and extra for occasional travel around the country and some recreational extras.  My parents valued education, and the house was filled with books, and we had uncommonly early access to the internet.

Education from primary to secondary school was free(ish), and subsidised tertiary education was accessible through the student loan system (to which I am now burdened for life).  Any health issues requiring hospital care were also free – so long as one has the ‘luxury’ to wait.

We are a pākehā (of New Zealand European settler origin for those unfamiliar with the term) family who lived in a predominantly pākehā neighbourhood, city and country.  We spoke English (until 1987 this was the only official New Zealand language), and media as a whole represented our ‘kind’ positively.  My siblings and I grew up able-bodied and in good health, and had opportunities to expand our horizons.  We attended a mixture of medium to high decile schools, and at high school, our friends were the children of academics, lawyers and doctors (although we were not).  Our parents were in ‘respectable’ lines of work, and despite some occasional instability, threatened redundancies or relocations never eventuated.  Neither parent suffered physical ill-health, although mental illness was present.  They were a cis-gendered heterosexual couple who would not stand out in a crowd.

Due to my upbringing, I have been safe to explore issues and lifestyles that interested me, such as feminism and vegetarianism, without undue resistance.  I had access to tertiary education and the intellectual abilities to succeed, along with a family and (an admittedly narrow) cultural milieu that supported my inclination to study humanities rather than a vocation or a field that would more likely garner employment.

My cultural background was reflected in the educational facilities I attended, and in the curricula taught.  News and entertainment media showed people with faces like mine as the ‘good guys’, and the biggest reason for me feeling I didn’t ‘fit’ in Aotearoa New Zealand was my complete disinterest in rugby and other sports.

I was born biologically female, and was socialised as such, although I have certainly railed against certain aspects thereof.  I have spent some time questioning my sexuality, but have found myself in a long term stable relationship with a heterosexual cis man who has had a similar upbringing to my own.  I grew up in a society that expected me to be a heterosexual woman.

I have had the freedom to choose my own religion, or lack thereof.  While New Zealand has had, since colonisation, a strong tendency towards Protestant Christianity, I have never encountered any significant discrimination for my agnostic/atheistic beliefs.  This would not be the case if I ascribed to non-Judeo-Christian principles.

The first strands of the maternal side of my family arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand from Scotland in the 1850s, earning them the classification of ‘early settlers’ or, more accurately, colonists.  My paternal side came from Scotland a century later, in the 1950s.  Each side arrived to a very different setting, but each assumed the right to a pākehā dominated society.  The research I have done so far indicates no intermingling of pākehā and Māori ethnicities in my family lines.

Either in spite of, or because of, my homogenous ethnic background, along with my distaste for colonialism, I endeavour to honour te Tiriti o Waitangi and uphold its principles in all aspects of my life.  I was born into the current predominant ethnic grouping in this country, and I recognise that the demographic and cultural shift has been immeasurably destructive to tangata whenua and to Papatūānuku.  It is partly because of this that I choose to define myself (controversially to some) as pākehā instead of the more common ‘NZ European’ or ‘New Zealander’.  No doubt I will write more on this in future posts.

I cannot right the actions of the past, but I live in a way in which I hope is recognisant of our history, and that minimises damage and continued inequalities into the future.  I seek out opportunities to engage with te ao Māori and to learn the language; my current knowledge of te reo is poor, but it is a work in progress.

None of what I have written is to show off or to rub in anyone’s face.  It is intended as a recognition of the factors that have shaped me (undoubtedly I have missed some), and it is something I intend to refer back to when faced with issues I am struggling to understand – to ‘check my privilege’ as it were.


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